Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)
Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Christians, throughout their long history, have met with martyrdom and this happens regularly. The regularity of martyrdom confirms a certainty. The earliest apostles were warned by Christ in this regard and Christians knew that the choice which they had made exposed them to death and, that this would always be the case.
Faith calls for sacrifice and Christians have within themselves seeds of martyrdom. Jesus himself, their Master, was delivered over to the wrath of his compatriots. Shortly before his arrest, he spoke to his disciples those unforgettable words which we read in Jn.10:18 thus: "No one takes my life, but I lay it down of my own accord". Thus, Jesus was the first martyr in the History of Christianity, the martyr par excellence.
Centuries before the Church became a norm, a power which was armed, inflicted persecution. Christianity had that radical character in keeping with the Gospel which made its members endure death rather than renounce the One to whom they lifted up their prayers.
In many parts of the world, Christians even now run the risk which makes their origins and the interminable succession of Christian martyrs in different parts of the globe today reminds us the fact that faith is still focused on a CRUCIFIED MAN, on what he said and did. Societies, mentalities, institutions and sciences many be different, but faith in Jesus Christ is drawn irresistibly towards a passion. However, not everyone is led to experience this in the flesh, but martyrdom remains as an eventuality.
The long list of martyrs, thousands of men and women, in responding to the call of the Gospel, accepted death willingly. However, they were not offensive. They were peaceful, sober and loyal people and they practiced alms giving. Men and women, educated and simple, young and old, poor and rich, famous and anonymous, -- all these were stubborn about one thing: they refused to offer sacrifice to the idols, whether it be other gods or the Emperor. They died for refusing to make a gesture, not saying a word, making a distinction between heaven and earth and their message was CAESAR IS NOT GOD. Their basic loyalty was to God. However, they respected and prayed for the authorities. They even prayed for the success of their enterprises and that was the only symbolic crime that they had committed, but they would not submit to any other authority on earth except God. Thus, we can say that martyrdom arose out of refusal to worship the idols. In other words, their message was: GOD IS GOD and CAESAR IS NOT GOD.
‘But the power does not like any other symbols but its own. Thus, persecution broke out in three stages in the first four centuries in the asingly carried on with conviction.
The diversity of martyrdom and its meanings in the history of Christianity:
1. Reasons for Martyrdom in the Antiquity
We identify six aspects in this regard. The first reason for martyrdom in the antiquity is the confession of Jesus Christ. Martyrdom in the antiquity, above all, had a catechetical and missionary urgency. Therefore, in the antiquity martyrdom arose quite naturally out of the work of proclamation. That is, in this proclamation, -- God, made man, was born, lived, died and rose again for our salvation -- Christians died specifically for Christ.
The second reason is that the aspect of refusal. When Gospel encountered the two different cultures, those two societies responded by suspicion and rejection. Jews could not accept the idea of God incarnate. The divine is transcendented for them. Hence, they were offended about the "God, made man" language and the content. But the Romans should have been less hostile because, they had the custom of opening their Pantheon to the gods of the nations which they had conquered. Thus they would not let one religion to stop them. They were also steeped in metaphysics and so, they should have been less hostile. But they got aroused by Christians. This was because Christians exerted pressure in the Jewish region like a malignant tumor. What appeared to be an internal squabble within Judaism, it was found out by the Romans that the religious squabbles had political consequences. The new sect was not confined to the narrow sphere of Judaism.
Thirdly, the new sect had the proselytizing ardor. It sent out missionaries; faith spread fast and it made progress. For Christians, the spread of faith meant progress. But others saw this as a "contagious disease". Although the converts were disciplined people and did good works from two fronts the vindictiveness was exerted: among people whose traditions were disturbed, there circulated atrocious lies, namely: Christians practiced incest; they devoured children in the secret assemblies, etc. And, in the State, it could not tolerate its subjects refusing to sacrifice to the gods of the country. That was the essential cause of the quarrel. Their refusal meant challenging the divine right claimed by the emperor. He had to be called "Lord". But, Christians had only one Lord and therefore, they would not bend their knees to any one else. No arms, no laws and no power could intimidate Christians. Litigation was reduced to a question of words. The rulers were confounded by the fervor of Christians and so, they were sent to the stake, beheaded and thrown to the wild beasts.
Fourthly, martyrdom occurred as a result of misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension between Christians and Romans. Romans thought that punishment would punish, dissuade and eventually divert the attention of the converts. So, Rome wanted to take their lives in order to deprive them of their religion. They wanted to reward those who took pleasure in the barbarism of the games., State, thus organized the spectacle of torture! Why amuse crowds! It was to distract the crowd. Circus and amphitheater and games became sources of distraction. Thus, people got rid of their latent violence, forgot their political grievances and took stock on the terraces where they were seated of their national and social dignity because fate had never made them slaves or barbarian and they were not put in the arena. The most recent example of this kind is the Olympic games conducted in Seoul, South Korea. What happened to Korea which was burning until recently? where are the students and workers who were on the street? Everything seems to be all right there, thanks to Seoul Olympic games!
Fifthly, martyrdom, in the antiquity, meant combat of faith. While others looked at it differently, for Christians combat meant struggle against the ultimate temptation. which was to live at the price of infidelity. So; Christians allowed themselves to be savaged and were ready to pay the price. For instance, in the amphitheater in Rome Ignatius of Antioch wrote thus:
May I benefit from the wild beasts prepared for me, and I pray that they will be found prompt with me, whom I shall even entice to devour me promptly-not as with some whom they were too timid to touch; and should they not consent voluntarily, I shall force them". (Christian Martyrs)
Sixthly, the death of Christians bore witness. It had a marvelous aura. Even without miracles; the remains of the heroes became objects of veneration. If there were no remains their stories spread, firing the neophytes with new zeal. They were encouraged by examples such as Tertullian who said: "The blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church". Days in the dungeon, journeys to their execution and imprisonment, -- all these were occasions for proclaiming the Gospel. Therefore, Christians needed to see, to hear, to touch these athletes who for them were the best proof of the power of God, so visible at work, and in such a way. Nothing could distract Christians and so the crowds began to think.
2. Reasons for martyrdom in the Classical Period
The period from the end of Middle Age may be roughly described as the classical period. During this period, Christ’s command: "Go and teach all nation" was implemented with vigor. His command was literally understood and therefore, attempts were made by Euro-Christians to put this command into practice. This coincided with the navigators’ attempt to launch Christians onto new adventures. Thus, navigators looked for new lands and the Euro-Christians looked for new souls to convert -- in the Third World.
While this was the context in which Christianization of the Third World took place, it must be borne in mind that the Gospel was brought to us with great perils, to people who did not know of it. Christian Missions brought Christianity to our parts and the missionaries who brought the gospel were generally committed people. They confessed Christ; they were blind to cruelty that awaited them in far off lands; they were patient and they suffered very much; when they had to die, they died murmuring His name. In spite of all these noble qualities, it must be remembered that missionary enterprise coincided with the colonization process in the Third World. We should not forget the fact that the theology of the Christian Missions served as handmaid in the colonization process on more than one occasion. In other words, the Christian theology that accompanied the missionaries justified the inhumanity heaped on the Third World people by the colonizers.
Therefore, the natives looked at them askance: where did these intruders derive the right to trample on our beliefs and reject our Gods ? Well, that was one of the consequences of Christianization of our parts. The same question raised by the Latin Americans as they "cautiously" celebrated the beginning of colonialism in their Continent this year is raised by all: who asked the white man to come? This question was and is raised even now in different countries in Asia, Africa, Caribbean Islands and Latin America. "Faith" did not ‘take’ well because cultures were different and penetration of Far East or Africa posed great many enigmas to the western conscience. Here Christ had the misfortune to arrive after the Spaniards or the Portuguese, -- in the context of two enterprises that went hand in hand: faith and trade. In other words, Christian mission seemed to be an instrument of Western covetousness. It is interesting and revealing to note the observation made by Guarani Indian to Pope John-Paul II in Manaus in 1980 thus: "Brazil was not discovered, Brazil was stolen". Any country in the present-day Southern Hemisphere will easily echo this sentiment is beyond doubt. During this period, martyrdom of Christians was accompanied by the shadow of the conquerors!
The Christian missionaries who brought Christianity to our parts thought that they were bringing true God to the people who did not know of him. But, for the natives, it meant ransacking the thick forest of legends in which the soul of people delighted. In this context, more difficult, enigmatic and embarrassing questions are being raised: were we robbed? If robbed, in what sense and terms? Was disrespect shown to our cultures, philosophies and ideologies? Were the Euro-North Americans destroyers or preservers?
Missionaries who came to our parts came knowing fully well the fate that awaited them. In the midst of wretchedness, sickness and revolts, they made the absolute gift of their persons; they dedicated themselves not only to teaching but also to helping tribes and the depressed and deprived sections and loved them with all the power of the gospel.
The rise of clerical power during this period also brought about martyrdom. The Edict of Milan promulgated by Constantine, the Emperor, brought the State apparatus at the disposal of the Christian Church. With this edict, the Church and state, the spiritual and temporal powers aligned and gave each other mutual support. Both Christians and pagans considered the political institution as divine in origin. Is it? We need to reflect on it.
The Church, in aligning itself closely with the State, thought that by using the temporal power, it fulfilled the mission and collaborated in the advent of the Kingdom. In the process, the Church succumbed to political temptations. Church born in the catacombs, was unaware of the inner inertia of power. It thought that its duties were unlimited, so were its rights.
The Church was the sole interpreter of the sacred text it had. It read promise or judgement in it. According to her understanding, the salvation was to be achieved by bending the mind, gaining submission to the authorities which in turn meant that the faithful show them the faith due to God. It meant allegiance to the head to the Church, Pope, or Patriarch. This crude religion believed in punishment, again in good faith and thought that it could alleviate above by contributing to it here below Thus, exposed to dubious alliances with politics, ensnared by the distortions of its own power, in the course of its history, the Church, as an institution, yielded to covetousness stirred up by material goods and the intoxication of being in charge. The Church assumed all authority, claimed to offer salvation and made itself absolute. Sadly enough, the theology was the problem!
There was also another problem during this time. The Church, as an Institution, did not like individual Christians who interpreted the defacto position of the Church in the light of the Gospel and set over against it a form of Christianity. Such attempts to interpret the sacred text was seen as a revolt. But at root, it was often fidelity. The wrath of the Church meant that Christians themselves became victims of other Christians who were the executioners. Thus a new race of martyrs was born because the Church was too strong or too weak to allow that it had faults, although this aspect was highlighted in abundance by some who became martyrs and met with a violent death. One supreme example was John Huss.
Martyrs such as John Huss, Wycliff and others addressed the Church or the monarch, and became martyrs in telling them in what respects they thought these were in error or where they thought them right. This dissidence of the martyrs was personal to them; it was the fruit of an illumination, a revelation, a studious reflection and a voice speaking to them, as it was the case with Joan of Arc. In the process of becoming martyrs, they had to contend with indifferent faithful and the hostile clergy. They were assailed with dogmas, Bible, obedience, judgement and another salvation. They were also regarded as negative figures. People in general attributed the conflicts which broke out in the Mother Church to their piety. There was political and religious reasons behind the martyrdom of Joan of Arc. The Church as an Institution stood against the freedom of the individual and this warranted martyrdom. The martyrdom of John Huss and later the great massacres of the Reformation relate to the same conflict between the Institution and individual freedom.
There were yet one more reason for martyrdom during the classical period. The Church, as an Institution, opposed Inspiration. That is, the truth of the faith seemed guaranteed by the immobility of the false theological knowledge. So, during Reformation there were the prophetic form of a number of isolated protests.
3. Reason for martyrdom in the Twentieth Century
In the 20th century, the Church had undergone political changes. She is stripped of political powers which she enjoyed in the previous centuries. The only power she has now is the power that emanates from the word. As for faith, she is brought back to the earth.
With regard to martyrdom in the 20th century we notice a shift: from the "heroic" to the "anonymous" martyrdoms; from the "individual" to the "collective" martyrdoms; from the "historical" to the "contemporary" reality As for the content of faith, it can be said that faith in Christ works towards liberating people from the bondage, -- of all sorts. In other words, human beings have become the concern of the Church and Christian faith. Why did this shift take place and in what context?
Alarmed at the horrors of violence and threat to human life, the Church began to focus its attention on human beings. The Churches are studying this vast human identity, so often denied, ridiculed, exploited, massacred. They oppose the coalition of interests, calculations, fears or ignorance, with a concern which subordinates every principle to human dignity, and which begins with basic respect for life as such. It is in this context, Pope John Paul II, for instance, is hailed as the Pope of human rights in the five continents.
Further, the Church and Society Conference of the World Council of Churches in 1966 and the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Latin America (CELAM) in 1968, both representing the Ecumenical Movement, proclaimed a message to the Christians at large in identical terms thus: they said:
If the Church wants to share its life with the world then it must put its weight on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
In other words, Iraeneus’ observation that "the glory of God is the living human being" sums up the aspirations of contemporary faith. Well, then, is life superior to honor? Does faith at present dictate the duty of cowardice to the faithful, inviting them to sacrifice everything for their safety? In what does my honor consist?, one might ask.
The answer is that it consists in the life of others, which calls for freedom, security, and justice; and if necessary I must defend them at the price of my own life.
Martyrdom, in the twentieth century, became inevitable in the context of totalitarian orders which quench the spirit, sow death and scorch the earth. Until recently, two super powers namely, the U.S.A and the US.S.R. appealed to antithetical catechism. Now, there is only one power which pretends to act as the police man of the world. At the instance of USA, the worship of the Mammon continues. While this is the context in the North, in the South, the people are weakened by misery, allow themselves to be torn by fratricidal struggles and remain defenseless in the face of those who suck them to the marrow. East against West and North against South, this way hate crucifies the world. In the earlier part of 20th century we had Nazism, Fascism and Auschwitz. Now we have the threat from Chemical weapons, neutrons and, the bacteria, as well as giant multi-national and trans-national corporations. Thus there is violence to life, human life, animal life and plant life. Mass violence characterizes the present-day situation of the world. Because of this mass violence, the notion of martyrdom has broadened out and become imprecise. Martyrdom today extends to groups sacrificed to the contemporary barbarism. Whole peoples become martyrs: Jews, Gypsies, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese, the tribals, the Dalits in India and women everywhere. In other words, torture and summary execution is the fate of many in the world today.
The second feature of martyrdom in the 20th century is that though nothing was willed, everything was accepted. A definitive choice guided the destiny of the martyrs. For example, Sister Alice Domon remarked to the Archbishop of Toulouse thus: "I have already made the sacrifice of my life".
The third feature of martyrdom in the 20th century is that it takes the side of the oppressed. That is, to give in or to accept death with patience is not enough. To merit the title, he or she should be entirely swallowed up by death. What merits them? Martyrs are those who suffer but their groans, far from being a disavowal of what they were, express the noble reason for their deaths and change the apparent fatality into an absolute proof of loge. For this reason we can say that the last word which honors the martyr is not COMPASSION but EXAMPLE. That is to say, men and women, in the 20th century sacrifice their lives with a view to rescuing their brothers and sisters from scorn, from propaganda, from misery, from death and from all four at the same time. Witnesses are agreed here in spite of the fact that the circumstances and the issues are different:
Maximilian Kolbe took the place of another to perish slowly of hunger and thirst;
Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a children’s game in which all races would hold hands;
Oscar Romero died calling on his compatriots for basic justice.
Thus, we see a claim which makes sense of all the martyrdoms of our time: Martyrs today no longer die explicitly for Jesus Christ nor for the freedom of the Spirit as was the case in the first two periods we had considered, but they die for human justice, i.e., an urgent new action is needed to defend those who are overwhelmed by the weight of totalitarianism. One may ask: what is this faith if it is not explicitly for faith in Jesus Christ or for the freedom of the spirit? The answer to that comes in the form of another question: Can faith serve God if it does not FIRST serve humankind? In other words, the contemporary martyrs are involved in political matters and are more often concerned in action than speaking, like the first Christians, or thinking as at the end of the Middle Ages. Thus, the contemporary martyrs throw themselves into the combats of the world, they denounce its impostures, seek to reduce the atrocious inequality of fortunes and classes, to uproot the cult of Mammon, the bloodiest of the gods, and dismantle the systems of oppression. By involving themselves totally in the combats of the world, the contemporary martyrs make themselves the apostles of the human person. This is clear in what M.L. King, Jr. had said in 1961, in the context of threat to his life from the powers that were and in the context of strike by Garbage Collectors:
It may crucify me. I may die. But even if I die in the struggle I want people to say, "He died to make me free.
Thus, the faith of these martyrs is totally swallowed up in the absolute urgency embodied in the oppressed and their suffering. We give prominence to the martyrs of the yester years and yester centuries. They do deserve that. But we should not overlook those others who suffer besides the martyrs. I quote Theofried Baumester who says thus:
The prominence given to the martyrs should not be made retrospective. But those others who suffer besides the martyrs should not be overlooked. Today they need a different theological treatment than in early Christianity. (Concilium)
The fourth feature of martyrdom in the 20th century is that the end of these modern martyrs is very different from anything evident in former centuries. In the former centuries, the martyrs were arrested, judged, and delivered over to death; two theories were in conflict: Where is God, in an institution or in a conscience? Now there is no longer debate between a way of thinking and the supposed virtues of order. In the modern times, the persecuted person speaks in the name of his or her faith, deeply rooted in a cultural heritage. It is clear that the martyrs. embody the side of justice.
The fifth feature of martyrdom in our century is that the persecutor is often put to shame. Persecutor employs state violence, and horrible means to quench life. He or she refuses to acknowledge his or her motives in employing state violence and horrible means. The persecutor spreads lies, propagates myths and uses the media to reach the ends. For instance, the Third World theologians are branded as Marxists, drunkards, womanizers, depressed, homosexuals, lesbians, Anti-nationals insurrectionists and so on, when they in fact, are trying to live out their faith in defense of the defenseless. Again, AIDS disease is highlighted as the most urgent and serious problem in the world today. No doubt about that for, the experts say so. What about malnutrition, undernourishment, hunger and poverty around the globe -- in Somalia, Ethiopia and the severe human rights violations in countries such as South Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and so on?
In today’s world, the persecutor adopts dubious means to silence the dissent voices and, silencing voice is the most atrocious crime. Therefore, there are no trials and the persecutor closes the mouth of the opponents. Public execution is avoided. Eg: Bhuto. No one may see the condemned person; no spectacle of death; his or her patience, voice or look many convey too much. Hence, the attempt to silence dissent or dissident voices who speak of freedom, truth, justice and humanity. Thus, in modern days, not only the victim but the entire judicial apparatus is concealed, That is why the mode of killing resembles an assassination. Eg: Aquino was killed in broad day light. Thus, there is no justice, no tribunal and no scaffold, -- a person is butchered! Victims fate is hidden, suppressed and in an uncertain trial, the victim remains behind the closed doors. Death perpetrated by paramilitary bands, hooligans, a militia which the state virtuously disowns after giving arms, sometimes to both parties in conflict. Assassination is concealed behind an abduction because a bullet could be too much of a noise! However, concealment confesses the innocence of the victims and it equally points a finger at the guilty under their masks. It also pronounces the stifled message which gives the martyr his or her full significance as a witness. For it is the face of Christ that it brings out in the very act in which it seeks to deny it. Did precautions of the persecutors prevent people like Romero and Jerzy Popeluszko from becoming legends? The committed speak even after their death, perhaps even while they live out the truth in their lives. How is this possible? This takes us to the next section.
Thus far, we had seen the diversity of martyrdom in three periods. Martyrdom arose for different reasons. In the antiquity in was the confession of the name of Christ which brought about martyrdom. In the second period, it was speaking on behalf of the freedom of the spirit or conscience. In the present day it is social justice which warrants martyrdom. But is there a unity in the concept of martyrdom? How fair are we in interpreting the meaning of martyrdom in three periods as we had seen thus far? The distinction made here is for the sake of clarity and because of historical development. Thus, this distinction is an apparent one. But then, how are we to understand martyrdom with all its diversity and meanings? Is there a unity of purpose in martyrdom? yes, we will come to that shortly. But before that we should mention the two elements of constancy that we identify in the history of martyrdom in Christianity. The first element of constancy refers to the persecutors. They are the same even now, barbarians, and they expect people to call them Lords, say, the Caesar is Lord! The second element of constancy refers to the persecuted. Their faith and steadfastness is the same. They say even now: God is Lord. The different approaches adopted by the persecuted, the martyrs, stem from a single center, belief in Jesus Christ. But this faith in Jesus is understood differently today than it was in the earlier centuries. This faith or belief in Jesus Christ, therefore, needs to be interpreted, because:
Who would dare to confess Christ without concern for his or her impoverished brothers and sisters, and without holding his or her head high before Caesar?
Who can claim to be free if they do not allow their neighbors to be because they have no food, and if they do not invoke the supreme dispenser of freedom?
Who can believe themselves to be vehicles of justice if they do not attend to the perpetrators of slavery, and taking the side of humanity, do not stand up to the powers which take only its own side; or if they do not serve, in the person of the poor, the figure of one who made himself poor to crown them with his glory?
So, what is this faith or belief in Jesus? How are we to interpret it? We need to systematize our reflections.
4. The Unity of Martyrdom: An Attempt at Interpretation and Systematization
First of all, martyrdom should be understood in relation to the service of the humiliated. People do not die today to defend their cause as Christians. But the cause is certainly there. As Leonardo Boff says:
The martyr defends not his life, but his cause, which is his religious conviction, his fidelity to God or his brother. And he defends this cause by dying.
Neither do they fight for heavenly thoughts. But for the person of Christ in the poor. Christ is present in each one of us, especially in the person of the poor. That is why:
Thomas More refused to take oath which dishonored his country and looked for the unity of the universal church. Behind the voices that Joan of Arc heard was the wounded honor of a nation.
The Apostolic Fathers who left writings before undergoing martyrdom bear witness that they too demanded the bread that was due to the poor. For example, Ignatius and Polycarp preached "help for the widow, the orphan, the afflicted, the captive, the freedman, the hungry and the thirsty". In other words, their presence is part of the design of God for whom they die.
These men and women accepted suffering because their conviction extended beyond themselves to serve the human community and to take its part on earth. In other words, their faith is focused downward, not upward, or heavenward. So, far from taking them aside into the heavens, faith nails them to these kingdoms of the earth, which are promised to the meek to inherit and the love of which they sometimes confess.
Secondly, martyrdom should be understood in relation to the freedom of the spirit. The freedom of the spirit is interior to faith. This freedom is not the monopoly of the wise or the powerful. All of us have this freedom. That is to say, the martyrdom of which it is the cause gives a hearing to the voices of people, without distinctions of class, fortune, education, age and something which is more rare, -- sex. Faith invests men and women born to shadow and silence with an authority. Old men such as Polycarp and frail women like Perpetua and Felicita show it to Caesar. But they are not rebels and there is nothing to hold against them. They are subject to those who govern them. But they are stubborn in opposing a power which glorifies itself and makes itself an end in itself. The race of freemen, the martyrs, professes political irreligion. Its slogan is: "Down with the cult of the emperors!" In other words, Christian martyrdom is based on opposition to the power which takes itself as an absolute point of reference. Christians still say that "Caesar is not Lord".
This Christian freedom, from outside, looks like rebellion within and it is confused with an obedience made an absolute, which has a name because it has a master, Jesus Christ. That is why, Joan of Arc could confidently declare thus: "I look to my judge, who is the master of heaven; yes, I look to my creator. I love him with all my heart". Polycarp echoes the same thus: "I have served him for eighty-six years" or "He has been faithful to me for eighty-six years". In the 20th century the same obstinate voice of Romero is heard thus: "We obey the order of God before that of human beings". In a seminary in India, in the context of suppression of human rights and denial of participation in the decision-making processes, the voice of the former Moderator of Church of South of India, Bishop Anandara Samuel, was recently heard thus "It is better to obey God than the Moderators". The last example cited here makes me to observe that martyrs need not to be only those who met with violent death and are dead, but martyrs can be still living, facing death or opposing death in their day-to-day lives. Martyrs are still there, still living but ready to die for a cause. They are numerous. These modern day martyrs explain themselves. They do not depart from the general spinelessness through personal exhibitionism or in the pride of an elitist intelligence. Further their personal drama is lost in the vastness of an eternal design into which they throw themselves without fear and sometimes without displeasure. So, martyrdom is always a confession of faith, secret or expressed. It goes before God fri wonder. The martyrs confront their persecutors, full of humanity, if not of humor. If they protest it is at the evil done by their brothers to the "least and the last" of the humanity. The cause of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized -- secularized -- is also a confession of Christ.
This broadening of the Christian vocation should not be treated as a break in the tradition of martyrdom. Karl Rahner, in making a plea for the broadening of the classical concept, asks: (with reference to Romero)
For example, why should not some one like Bishop Romero, who died while fighting for justice in society, a struggle he waged out of the depths of his conviction as a Christian why should he not be a martyr? Certainly he was prepared for his death (Concilium, p. 10.)
This question is legitimate and we will come to that later. The point to remember here is that the 20th century martyrs refuse to sacrifice men and women to Mammon, the new idol of our time. Their combat is also spiritual. To understand this otherwise would be to misunderstand and misrepresent the meaning of martyrdom. The martyrs of the present day persist in confronting oppressive power; they stimulate independence of judgement, insensitive to the seductions of money and power, and they flourish above all the faithfulness to service of the most abandoned, where faith contemplates the form of Christ in the present. Boff brings home this point powerfully thus:
Today, more and more Christians, particularly in the Third World, are carrying out actions ... Which originate in faith and the Gospel. Not a few Christians ... because of the Gospel, make a preferential option for the poor, for their liberation, for the defense of their rights. In the name of this option they stand up and denounce the exercise of domination and all forms of social dehumanization. They may be persecuted, arrested, tortured and killed. They, too, are martyrs in the strict sense of the word (Concilium, p. 14)
Finally, martyrdom today should be understood in relation to the Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed. Martyrs of old confessed faith in the risen Christ. But the martyrs in our times confess their faith in the Kingdom which Jesus of his own historical context proclaimed. Jesus’ ministry and mission was focused on the Kingdom (Mk.1:14-15). The martyrs or witnesses of the earlier centuries, particularly those in the antiquity; awaited judgement at the end of time, they patiently awaited divine justice. Whereas contemporary witnesses have turned their eyes away from the glory of the heavens, obscured by the infinite sorrow of the world. What is this Kingdom? When is it to be fulfilled or realized ? At the end of time? Does it not have two dimensions: the "already" and the "not yet"? How right is the understanding that the divine justice is to be awaited and the Kingdom to be realized here and now in time and history? When one is engaged in theological niceties, the contemporary martyrs who are dead or who are alive, raise, the following questions with enough legitimacy and justification:
How do we talk of God in the midst of poverty, oppression, war and meaninglessness? Should not our God-talk be meaningful in and related to the context? Should we await God’s power and justice only at the end of time? If God is active in history through the Incarnation of Jesus of his own historical context, then how do we celebrate God’s presence and participation in our living situations, in our search for meaning, in our hopes and fears, and in our anguishes and aspirations ? If God is powerful and Just, then should God not intervene instead of waiting ? If God is just, then should not God help instead of judging? It was in such a situation of complexity, suffering and oppression and denial of basic human rights and humanity that one martyr, our contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoffer, came up with the idea or faith reflection that "only a powerless God can help".
That is to say, faith today is oriented towards the kingdom, its value, life-style and it meditates on the scourged Christ, on the power of love bestowed, i.e., on passion and suffering. Faith seeks God in Christ among the humble, the scorned in whom God is embodied. In other words, the Lord of the 20th century is the suffering servant of Second Isaiah, with wounded face and hands, which also tend the unfortunate of whom he is so intimately the brother. The important thing to remember is that God, in Christ, has made himself known in history. God is where God’s people are, -- especially among the least and the last, the unfortunate, the less privileged, the dehumanized, the suffering and the oppressed and the poor. Jesus did not ask his faithful to love elsewhere than on the earth where they have met him, nor otherwise than as he loved himself, dedicating himself to the liberation of our humiliated race. I close with John 12:24-25 which reads thus:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears abundant fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Chenu, Bruno. et. al. Book of the Christian Martyrs. pp. 1-29.
Musirillo, Herbert, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, p xi-ivii.
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Eberhard, Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life, Thought, Witness: Letter and Papers from Prison.
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King, Martin Luther, Jr.. Why We Can’t Wait.
............................Strength to Love: Chaos or Community.
Oscar Romero, The Church is All of You.
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